Local advocacy to global good

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In recent months, there have been countless occasions in which I’ve watched in disbelief at political events unfolding across the world. Here in Amsterdam, life continues more or less as ‘normal,’ but it’s led me to ponder: what role can brands play in this new context? And how, as marketers, creatives and communicators, can – and should – we respond?

In this context, as an industry, it’s important that we recognize our own power. Consumers are jaded. Communities are breaking down, and borders are going up. People are looking for purpose and connection, and genuine added value from brands.

Within our business, we’ve seen a big shift from brands aiming for ‘aspirational lifestyles’ to something more meaningful. Yes, we are living in fraught times, but I believe in the power of business and brands to shape and inform culture for good.

Global good

As a base for global brands, Amsterdam has proven that time and again. Creative work that promotes good is built into the fabric of the city, and brands have a history of supporting causes they believe in.

The work we’ve been doing with TOMS underscores this; TOMS are using their power and platform for positive change, collaborating with real people - telling real stories, in an effort to solve real problems. Over the past few seasons, we’ve had the privilege of working alongside the team to tell the stories of change-makers working on issues such as domestic abuse, body image and homelessness.

As part of this work, we’ve spent time with UK guitarist and songwriter James McVey of the Vamps to talk about body image and the impact bullying has had on his life. Together with TOMS and The Mix, the UK’s leading support service for young people, James has opened up a much needed dialogue about body positivity.

Another brand paving the way is Patagonia who continues to win hearts and minds by putting their mission and vision before the product. They bring their position to life by supporting grassroots activists and being outspoken on environmental issues. When somebody wears Patagonia, you immediately understand their values and what they stand for. That’s the power of their brand.

Expanding the mission

So, while The Netherlands has a long history of brands using storytelling to support causes, is it possible to take the lessons we’ve learned here and expand our mission?

In 2012, I personally travelled to Rwanda as part of The Girl Effect Initiative to put my storytelling power to the test; could we build a brand that would empower and educate young girls and generate a shift within society?

To resonate and connect in a powerful way, it was essential that we listened to the audience instead of just landing a brand in an emerging media landscape, one with all the answers. Over four years, we built a multi-faceted platform that included radio and the first full-colour publication in the country. The result? A survey conducted in 2017 confirmed that Ni Nyampinga is a more widely known brand than Coca Cola with 41% of the local population engaging with it regularly.

Closer to home, over two decades leading HarrimanSteel as executive creative director, I’ve learned the value of listening, empathy, and human insight as the basis for the creative brief. Brands that will succeed going forward need to bring real emotional truth to their storytelling and be able to demonstrate this in how they live, what they do, and the way they frame the message.

Yes, we’re living in incredibly divided times, faced with conflict at home and abroad, and it is the time for us all to put our collective storytelling to the test. Our previous work with the Girl Effect demonstrates that the approach Amsterdam has to brand advocacy can work when transplanted to campaigns half the world away.

Now is the time as a brand to stand out and not shy away from emotion. To stand up for the issues that matter. Brands can change the world we live in, shape people’s minds, and inform their opinions.

More than ever before, we need to consider: what stories are we telling? And which voices are we choosing to elevate? These are weighty decisions to make, so let’s make sure we do work that counts.

Nick Steel, founder, HarrimanSteel

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